CUZCO 'CENTRE AND HEAD OF ALL THE LAND'
Minerva|January/February 2021
Cuzco was the heart of the vast Inca empire, but all changed in the 16th century when the capital was conquered by Spanish invaders. Michael J Schreffler investigates the Inca city, and how it went from the centre of one empire to the periphery of another.
Michael J Schreffler

By the early 16th century, the Inca empire was the largest power in the pre-Columbian Americas. Its territory spanned more than 5,000km, stretching from the environs of Quito in Ecuador to Santiago in Chile. In Quechua, the language of the Inca, it was known as Tahuantinsuyu, the Realm of Four Parts. An extensive system of roads connected this expansive realm, facilitating communication throughout the empire and providing links among its imperial administrative centres. One of its main arteries led travellers through the Andes, crossing mountain passes at heights of up to 6,000m, and transverse routes connected it to a parallel track running along the Pacific coast.

The place where the four realms converged, and the conceptual origin point for all of these roads, was Cuzco in Peru: the sacred centre and capital of the empire. Its densely built core was bounded by two streams – the Saphi and Tullumayo – that descended from springs to the north-west of the city. It is often claimed that Cuzco was designed in the shape of a feline, with the hilltop known as Sacsahuamán constituting its head and the area between the Saphi and Tullumayo forming its body, but it is more likely that the city came to be regarded that way only later, in the era of Spanish colonial rule. Inca Cuzco consisted of a number of large stone compounds, some of them surrounded with perimeter walls, and some of them serving as expansive palaces for Inca rulers and their kin. Estimates vary, but the scale of its infrastructure and available resources suggest Cuzco may have housed a population of 15,000 to 20,000 in the time of the Inca, with perhaps 100,000 or more in surrounding areas.

Centuries of political, cultural, and seismic upheaval have wrought significant changes on the Inca capital, but remnants of its temples, palaces, and plazas remain visible today. Flanking the narrow street of Loreto are walls built with the signature mortarless stonework of Inca royal architecture, its andesite blocks carved and set in courses like a three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle. At the church of Santo Domingo, a massive curving stone wall constructed by Inca masons in the 15th century stands beneath the external wall of the sanctuary. Its dark polished stones set in horizontal courses and its bulky curvature contrast with the rougher masonry of the church, whose Solomonic (twisting) columns and arches spring from their pedestals to support latticework screens in dark wood. In the adjacent Dominican monastery, Inca walls in the main cloister allow visitors to examine the stonework as well as the canted walls and trapezoidal doorways, windows, and niches that characterise Inca royal architecture throughout the empire.

The remains of Inca buildings in Cuzco together with the findings of archaeological investigation provide valuable information about the plan of the city and the design of its buildings. Augmenting this data are accounts recorded in the 16th century by Spaniards like Juan de Betanzos, who had become fluent in Quechua and collected information on Inca history from the indigenous elders of Cuzco. They told him that the city had its origins in ancient times when the founders of the Inca royal dynasty – Manco Cápac and his sister-wife Mama Ocllo – chose Cuzco as the place where they would live. They arrived bearing vessels made of gold in many shapes and sizes and wearing garments of the finest cloth, and they built a house near the place where the Saphi and Tullumayo converged. Many generations later, the elders said, the Inca ruler named Pachacuti (d. 1471 or 1472) built the House of the Sun, a temple dedicated to a solar deity on the site of the house the primordial couple had built.

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